Full list: Agriculture in the News

WPTZ: Vt. Senate committee weighing GMO labeling bill

Ben & Jerry’s and other food producers called on lawmakers to pass a strong labeling bill
By Jack Thurston
2/22/14
Full Article

MONTPELIER, Vt. —A group of companies from Vermont’s food industry called on the Vt. State Senate Wednesday to pass legislation requiring food labels that will let people know if they’re eating genetically-modified organisms or GMOs. The issue is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after having been advanced by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Last year, the Vt. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring GMO labeling by July, 2015.

“I think consumers want to know where their food comes from and what’s in that food,” said Chris Miller, the activism manager for the iconic ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, which has pledged to have all its pints labeled as GMO-free by mid-2014. “Vermonters want to shop their values. And it’s only through a label that will allow Vermonters to be able to do that.”

Most of the processed food sold in the center aisles of grocery stores contains ingredients like corn or soybeans that had their DNA modified to enhance crop yield. Many large-scale farmers call biotechnology a boon, and government regulators have said it has been a part of our food system for two decades, presenting no known food safety issues. However, critics and a growing number of consumers remain deeply skeptical and want transparency.

Maine and Connecticut have already passed laws that would mandate GMO labeling, but they’re delaying implementation until other states sign on. Vermont’s proposed bill does not wait for other states. Attorney General Bill Sorrell, D-Vt., warned lawmakers this month that the state would likely be sued by major food producers if it required labels.

“We’ve drafted language that is constitutionally defendable,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden County, one of the bill’s biggest champions in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee must now decide if the bill needs extra protections such as a legal defense fund or a clause that waits for bigger states to join, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the committee’s chairman.

The Vermont Grocers’ Association said it doesn’t have a position on whether or not food should be labeled, but insisted the issue should be a national one left to regulatory agencies. “Patchwork is not the right way to go,” said executive director Jim Harrison. “Uniform national labeling is the much more preferable way to go.”

Sen. Sears said he expects his Judiciary Committee to act early next month.


VPR: With Vt. Meat Industry Booming, Ag Agency Looks To Add Inspectors

2/18/14
By Angela Evancie
Full Article

Vermont’s slaughter and meat processing industry is booming, and meat inspectors at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets can’t keep up.

That’s according to Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary at the Agency, who told participants at a policy roundtable at the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont (NOFA) winter conference on Feb. 16 that the Agency is looking to expand its staff to meet a growing demand for locally butchered and processed meat.

The Agency has requested funding to add two more inspectors, called Food Safety Specialists; if the budget is approved by lawmakers, the safety specialist ranks would grow from seven to nine.

The number of slaughter and processing facilities in the state has more than doubled since January of 2012. There are now seven facilities, up from three in 2012, with an additional five facilities proposed for this year, according to data provided by Bothfeld.

The number of processing-only facilities has also doubled, from four in 2012 to nine in 2013.

Part of the reason for the staffing increase, officials said, is that Food Safety Specialists must pay daily visits to facilities that are in operation. Meat Programs Section Chief Randy Quenneville says that Vermont’s geography makes it difficult for inspectors to travel between multiple sites in a given day.

“One inspector covering three or four processing plants in a day in itself isn’t bad,” Quenneville says. “But if you take into account the travel time, it starts to make a difference.”

Quenneville noted that existing staffing is adequate for the current number of facilities, but said that the Agency would have trouble monitoring the additional proposed facilities without extra staffing.

Inspectors also pay occasional visits to 28 custom processing operations, which butcher meat that customers have slaughtered themselves, to check sanitation and record keeping.


VPR: New Farm Bill Boosts Hemp Cultivation In Vermont

By Bob Kinzel
February 21, 2014
Tucked away in the thousands of pages of the Farm Bill is a provision that affects the 11 states that have legalized the growing of hemp. Vermont is part of this group.
Full Article & Audio

Vermont’s law was passed last year, but the ongoing opposition of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has had a chilling effect on the cultivation of hemp in the state.

The DEA considers hemp to be a form of marijuana. But backers of hemp point out that it has very low levels of the chemicals that make marijuana an intoxicant. And they argue that hemp should not be illegal. The new Farm Bill supports their position.

Under the legislation, educational institutions like the University of Vermont can conduct field trials to determine the best variety of hemp for weather conditions in Vermont.

Heather Darby, an agronomist at UVM, says she’s excited about this project.

“Now we have the backing from the Farm Bill in one part of the federal government and also the state,” said Darby. “So the doors are opening up. There obviously are still some barriers and challenges to making all this happen.”

Darby says she would feel more comfortable if the DEA would sign off on the project.

“We’re sort of working through that to make sure we have a strong go ahead from the federal government not just sort of a soft one, I guess,” said Darby. “Because we don’t want to be caught with some significant liability and issues as well if not everyone supports this.”

Darby says another challenge will be getting hemp seeds for the trial.

Robb Kidd is the hemp coordinator at Rural Vermont, a group that strongly supports the growing of hemp in the state.

“For Vermont farmers, we see this as an additional economic benefit for the farmers who can add a product there is a high demand for,” said Kidd. “You can easily make bio fuels; you can make hemp seed oils, you can make bedding for your livestock.”

And Kidd says there are also some practical uses for hemp.

“Even just a hot bed issue in Vermont, riparian buffer zones,” said Kidd. “So with the quick growing you can actually have a little buffer crop that doesn’t require a pesticide.”

If all goes well, it’s possible that UVM will be able to launch its hemp trials sometime this summer.


Seven Days Letter to the Editor: Milk Myths

By John Ahern
2/19/14
Full LTE

Thank you for publishing “Raw Deal? Farmers Push Back Against Unpasteurized Milk Regulations” [January 29]. The article underscores the ongoing lack of evidence informing the dialogue between well-meaning dairy farmers, consumers and the regulators. The pronouncements of Erica Berl provide good evidence of the ignorance regarding raw milk and its processed counterpart. Berl, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Vermont Health Department, claims “there’s no meaningful difference between nutritional values of raw and pasteurized milk.”

Evidence would suggest otherwise. It is well known that the temperatures needed to pasteurize milk destroy or greatly reduce Vitamins C, B12 and B6, manganese, copper, iron and the enzymes that make milk digestible. In addition, calcium is rendered insoluble by heat. If the dairy cows are grass fed, as many are here in Vermont, the unprocessed milk also offers high levels of conjugated linoleic acid and essential fatty acids, which are known to be nutritionally beneficial.

The regulators, and Berl, also need to catch up on their reading. In early 2013, three quantitative microbial risk assessments were published in the Journal of Food Protection and subsequently presented at a special scientific session, “Unpasteurized milk: myths and evidence” at the Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. The evidence demonstrates that unpasteurized milk is a low-risk food.

John E. Ahern
Morrisville


Newport Dispatch: Got Raw Milk? It’s Around But Intentionally Hard to Get


By Bryan Marovich
Full Article

CRAFTSBURY — For hundreds of years raw milk has been a part of Vermont’s agricultural tradition. It’s recognized for its health, economic, and environmental benefits.

“My milk is produced for human consumption, not pasteurization,” Frank Huard, of Huard Family Farm in Craftsbury said.

The majority of milk produced in Vermont is shipped from large dairy farms to dairy co-ops and distributors for retail sale. But, there are still farmers who sell raw milk, which is unpasteurized, directly to customers.

A report from Rural Vermont which came out earlier in the week sheds new light on the raw milk debate. The report not only provides a snapshot of raw milk production and sales across the state, but it looks at what is working and what is not working with the current Raw Milk Law.

Because Vermont law doesn’t require those who sell raw milk to register with the state, it’s impossible to get an exact total of the amount produced or sold. However, the report shows that in a 12-month period, 2,000 customers bought more than 53,000 gallons of raw milk. This demonstrates that the production and sale of raw milk enables many Vermont farms to be more economically sustainable as they contribute to a growing community-based food system.

Frank Huard has been working hard to educate people as to the health benefits of raw goat milk. Frank is an expert in the field, and his farm was just awarded top quality goats’ milk at the Vermont Farm Show last Thursday. It’s the third time that they have been given the award.

The current law allows him to sell his product, but only if the customer comes to his farm to purchase it, or if he delivers it himself. Farmers are kept from selling raw milk at farmers markets, which the Rural Vermont report shows is something that needs to be addressed.

“What reason do we have to limit the access people have to certain products?” Huard asked.

One of the questions Rural Vermont asked in the study was if farmers stopped selling raw milk, what was the reason? One of the most common responses was “the farm is too far off the beaten path for customers to travel.”

It seems the current law is making it difficult for consumers to have easy access to raw milk, which in turn makes it harder for the farmers to reap some of the economic benefits that are available to them in the market. The demand is there but the supply is being cut off.


Times Argus: Vt. GMO bill gets showing of public support

February 08,2014
Full Article

MONTPELIER — The Senate Agriculture Committee voted Friday in support of labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients — without a requirement that other states act first before a Vermont law would take effect.

Friday’s 4-1 vote came after a Thursday evening public hearing at which there was unanimous support for GMO labeling, and strong opposition to tying a Vermont requirement to action by other states.

Next week, the bill is expected to move to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it’s uncertain what will happen there on the question of other states acting before a Vermont law takes effect.

More than 200 Vermonters gathered at the State House on Thursday to tell two Vermont Senate committees they want food containing genetically modified products to be labeled as such.

Americans were told decades ago that the now-banned pesticide DDT was safe, said Nova Kim, a collector and seller of wild mushrooms from Fairlee. “I spent the better part of my life dealing with health issues as a result,” she said.

She and others who testified said they “simply want to be able to choose” whether to eat genetically modified food. Many voiced strong suspicion about pesticides used on foods, and argued that genetically modified organisms are often designed to allow freer use of the chemicals.

One of the chemicals, the widely used herbicide Roundup, kills milkweed, a crucial food source for monarch butterflies, said Elizabeth Howard of Norwich.

The crowd’s sentiment was clear from the beginning. Signup sheets for speakers just before the hearing started showed more than 80 had put their names down as wanting to speak in favor of labeling.

The Vermont House passed a labeling bill last year. A draft pending in the Senate contains “options” for how the bill would become effective in the state. One would make a labeling law effective 18 months after two other states had passed similar legislation; another would require that four other states pass a labeling law.

Another provision would address fears that a state law would bring a court challenge from the biotech industry. It would set up a special defense fund to which labeling supporters could donate, with Vermont’s law taking effect when the fund accumulated $5 million.

Many speakers expressed little sympathy for the threat of lawsuits or the strategy of waiting for other states.

“I beg you to pass the labeling law without a trigger, regardless of what other states are going to do,” said Silvia Smith of South Strafford.

“Giving New Hampshire the power to decide if a Vermont law goes into effect is unacceptable,” said Stuart Blood of Thetford Center.

The biotech industry has argued there is no chemical difference between foods containing genetically modified ingredients and those that don’t. Thursday, a group of 28 food industry groups said they would support voluntary use by food companies of labels approved by the Food and Drug Administration indicating the food is genetically modified. Such a national system would pre-empt state laws.


The Hill: Food industry launches GMO push

February 06, 2014
By Ben Goad
Full Article

Major players in the American food industry formally launched an effort Thursday to head off regulations requiring labels on genetically engineered foods through the creation of a set of less restrictive federal standards.

The push for voluntary federal labeling standards, first reported by The Hill in November, follows expensive battles in California and Washington state over ballot initiatives seeking to impose mandatory labeling regulations.

The Coalition of Safe Affordable Foods, made up of roughly 30 trade groups from the food, biotechnology and farming industries, will press for legislation creating a voluntary labeling system for products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The group’s proposal would require labeling for any products deemed by the Food and Drug Administration to carry a public health threat — though, to date, none has — and impose a new mandatory pre-market technology review process at the agency.

At the same time, the measure would put an end to a growing number of mandatory bills that have cropped up in state legislatures around the country.

“The legislation we’re proposing would preclude state legislation that conflicts with the federal standards,” Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said.

The group is leading the push for a voluntary system and began circulating an outline for potential legislation months ago.

Food safety and consumer watchdog groups that are demanding a mandatory federal system are backing competing legislation now pending in both chambers of Congress.

The watchdogs derided the industry effort as a blatant attempt to keep the American public in the dark.

“Voluntary labeling is an absolutely ineffective policy solution and is not a substitute for mandatory labeling,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. “Instead of working together to meet consumer demand, GMA is using its deep pockets to ensure that congress and consumers are misled about their food supply.”

The industry proposal calls for mandatory labels for any products derived from genetically engineered plants — but only if they are found to present any risks to health or safety, according to an early draft of the industry proposal.

To date, the FDA has made no such finding with regard to GMOs.

In the absence of any such designation, the legislation would direct the FDA to develop a new voluntary labeling system under which products could be labeled as “GMO-free.” The labeling system would also apply to any companies that wish to label products as containing GMOs, according to the draft.


Take Part: This Country Has America Beat When It Comes to Handling Raw Milk

Illegal in many states, unpasteurized dairy is sold out of vending machines in Slovenia.
February 06, 2014
By Rebecca McCray
Full Article

Marko Bitenc gets more text messages than the average dairy farmer. Throughout the day, an app on his phone texts him updates on the quality of the raw milk in a vending machine down the road from the farm that he and his family operate just outside Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Hoping to meet the cows whose unpasteurized milk I’ve been drinking for the last three months, I rode the bus to just a few stops shy of the end of the line one day in January. After hopping off at the outskirts of the country’s capital, it was a short walk past a small bakery and grocery store to the Bitenc farm.

Across the street from the barn that houses the cows, I met the Bitencs at their home. Over glasses of apricot juice at their kitchen table, Marko and his wife, Monika, discussed the challenges of running a family-owned dairy farm and their decision to get into the growing business of mlekomats, as the vending machines are called in Slovene. The Bitenc farm’s machine is one of many that have appeared throughout the country in the last five years, all of which are owned and operated by local farmers. The system removes the corporate middleman, pleasing both farmer and customer.

Thanks to the frequent texts Marko receives, the Bitencs knows immediately if the refrigerator stops working and the milk in their machine, which they change daily, rises above the temperature designated as safe by the Slovenian Administration for Food Safety. If this happens, the machine automatically stops vending, preventing the sale of unsafe milk.

In spite of these strict precautions implemented by Slovenia, this kind of fresh, local convenience product is unimaginable in the U.S., where in many states the retail sale of unpasteurized milk remains illegal.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made its serious stance on raw milk clear in recent years through a series of dramatic raids targeting and prosecuting small farms and businesses that bypass pasteurization. Of particular concern to the FDA is the sale of raw milk across state lines, which has been outlawed since 1987. But beyond the unilateral illegality of cross-state sales, the confusing patchwork of laws at the state level makes it clear that our country is far from having a unified stance on unpasteurized milk, leaving the door open for an underground community of raw milk enthusiasts to thrive.

Raw milk vending machines—also found throughout Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria, and other neighboring countries—provide unpasteurized, local milk 24 hours a day. It’s a retail experience I first encountered in Ljubljana’s outdoor central market, where customers can purchase a reusable glass or plastic bottle from another machine (or bring their own containers) to fill. The milk from this machine comes from Farm Mis, a larger dairy at the base of nearby Šmarna Gora, the highest peak in Ljubljana, known by hikers for its pristine view of the Julian Alps.

Back in the U.S., I regularly bought a half gallon of homogenized milk, some of which would go bad before I could finish it. Deterred by ridiculous New York prices, I would only splurge on organic pasteurized milk if I felt indulgent. In Slovenia, I now buy raw milk in 20-cent increments, so I seldom have any leftover. Unsurprisingly, the unskimmed milk from the mlekomat is utterly unrecognizable compared with the bluish, watery counterpart I bought in the U.S.—another reason I rarely waste a drop.

One Euro in the machine buys a full liter of this rich milk, which is dispensed from a self-cleaning spout that is sterilized with a UV light between purchases. Any milk left in the machine at the end of a 24-hour cycle is removed, the leftovers sold to local grocers who cook it to make other dairy products; nothing is wasted. Every possible protection is taken to protect consumers, from regimented cleaning processes to monthly and yearly inspections by government officials.

The milk is marginally more expensive than its pasteurized counterpart sold in grocery stores, but this hasn’t deterred customers. The Bitenc family notes that the greatest benefit of owning a mlekomat has not been making more money but expanding the customer base. “The point is that everybody who lives in this area should be able to get fresh milk 24 hours a day. We wanted to offer a local food to the people,” Monika Bitenc said.

So what has Slovenia figured out that we haven’t? Nothing. Pasteurized milk is widely available in every supermarket, and disclaimers on the mlekomats inform customers of the safety benefits of cooking the milk before they serve it.

According to Marko and Monika, the raw milk is most popular with young families and older Slovenians, who remember getting fresh milk as kids.

Peter Hafner, a 66-year-old resident of Ljubljana, explained, “I buy [milk from the mlekomat] because I know they don’t add anything to the milk…and nothing is taken from it either. In other words, the milk from the mlekomats is natural.”


Food Safety News: Vermont Report Finds Fewer Raw Milk Drinkers Than Previously Thought

By Dan Flynn

Consumer demand for raw milk may not be as large as many have thought, according to a first-of-its-kind state profile of raw milk sales.

The just-released “Rural Vermont’s 2013-2014 Raw Milk Report to the Legislature” says that state dairies selling unpasteurized milk had 1,940 “unique customers.” That amounts to fewer than 1 percent of Vermont’s 324,084 households. If correct, the market for unpasteurized milk directly from the farm is far smaller in the Green Mountain State than the 3 percent or more often claimed by raw milk advocates and even cited by some federal health officials.

Rural Vermont, which advocates for raw milk, says its report to the legislature “is intended to provide a snapshot of the current status of raw milk production and sales and identify what is working and what is not working with the current Raw Milk Law.”

The new producer survey could spur debate about whether the raw milk market in Vermont and elsewhere is this limited, and if so, is it limited by supply or demand?

The five-year old Act 62 limits the sale of raw milk products to the farm in Vermont. Retail stores cannot sell it. The report found that 1,767 Vermont residents are purchasing raw cow milk on the farm. The average number of customers for raw cow milk was 33 per farm, with the median being 14 customers.

There are just 173 customers in Vermont for raw goat milk, for an average of 10 per farm and a median of five.

With many raw milk sales limited to the farm and others occurring only in the underground market, precise sales figures are difficult to acquire. Estimates usually come from often-unreliable consumer phone surveys.

The Rural Vermont report is not based on a random survey but a two-year outreach program to obtain data from the state’s raw milk dairy producers. It collected the information at a statewide “Raw Milk Summit” held last October and at regional raw milk meetings.

The project obtained responses from 110 raw milk dairymen and women, including 80 who sold raw milk directly to consumers during the previous year. Together, 76 dairy farms reported selling a total of 53,306.75 gallons of raw milk during the year, for an average of 772 gallons per farm. The median sales amount was 240 gallons per farm.

The average is lifted by a few respondents who sold higher volumes of raw milk, up to 9,000 gallons per farm. Producers of raw cow milk sold more than producers of raw goat milk. The mean for raw cow milk was 432.5 gallons and, for raw goat milk, it was 34 gallons.

Vermont raw milk dairies sold raw cow milk for $4 to $10 per gallon, with the average price being $7 per gallon. Raw goat milk sold for $5 to $15 per gallon, with the average price coming in at $10.

Gross sales for the 76 raw milk dairies that provided data totaled $373,018. The Rural Vermont study stated that the average gross income from raw milk was $5,470. Median gross income was $1,500, with a wide variation that ranged from $10-90,000 per year.

Per-farm sales for raw cow milk dairies averaged $6,718, with a median of $2,250. For raw goat milk dairies, the average was $1,066 and the median $503. The 54 farms that responded said from 0.01 to 100 percent of their sales were dependent upon raw dairy products.

Average sales from raw dairy totaled 20.9 percent, with the median coming in at 5 percent.

Rural Vermont reported that these 76 dairies had a total herd of 1,067 cows and goats. A total of 982 cows were being milked at the raw milk dairies, with an average of 17 cows per farm. The median was 3.5 cows.

Goat dairies reported a total herd of 87 animals, with both the average and the median being four goats.

Raw milk dairies are somewhat split about their approach to carrying liability insurance. Rural Vermont found that 44.7 percent of the dairies were insured, but a majority, 55.3 percent, was not. The report notes that only one carrier in Vermont is currently issuing insurance policies to raw milk farmers.

Also, 72.4 percent did not ship any milk product to bulk buyers. The other 28.6 percent did supply other producers and bulk buyers such as cooperatives.

The Vermont House Agriculture Committee is reviewing Senate Bill 70, which passed the upper chamber last year and could become the vehicle for loosening the state’s raw milk regulations.

Raw milk producers in the state told Rural Vermont they want lawmakers to lift the lid on the two-tier production limits currently imposed by Act 62. They’d also like changes to existing testing and inspection protocols.


WCAX: Vt. lawmakers, public, weigh in on GMO bill

Feb 07, 2014
By Ali Freeman
Full Article and Video

MONTPELIER, Vt. -Would you know if you were eating genetically modified food? Many Vermonters say they want laws passed to require companies to disclose when they use technology to alter their products. Potatoes, potato chips, milk, fruits, veggies and more GMO’s can be found everywhere. A proposed bill would require companies to clearly mark foods that have been genetically modified. But Vermont’s Attorney General says this could get the state into a sticky lawsuit.

“Don’t GMO me bro,” said Al Walskey of Bershire as the crowd laughed.

Although laughter filled the packed House Chamber at the State House Thursday night, it was a serious night of testimony. The topic: Genetically Modified food.

“I am concerned and want to know what’s in my food. And I would imagine that most legislators are also concerned and they would want to know what is in their food,” said Alton Smith of Wolcott.

Dozens gave testimony in front of two Senate committees, regarding a bill that would require foods with GMO’s to label accordingly.

Most of the corn and soy crops grown in the U.S. come from GMO seeds — which are engineered to resist insects and herbicides. The FDA says they are indistinguishable from non-GMO foods, so they don’t have to be labeled. And labeling opponents say doing so, would wrongly imply the foods are unsafe.

The Vermont House passed a bill last year requiring GMO labeling by July 2015, and now it’s up to the senate. Hundreds turned up for the public testimony, many voicing concerns about health risks from genetically modified foods.

“Ladies and gentleman, in light of serious unsettled questions about the safety of GM foods and associated herbicide use — I submit that the Vermont market must have information at the retail level as soon as possible to work correctly,” said Timothy O’Dell of Corinth.

Many also testified against the proposed trigger clauses. These proposed clauses could mean this law would only go into effect after other states have done the same.

“I beg you to pass the labeling law without a trigger — regardless of what other states are going to do,” said Sylvia Smith of South Strafford.

Everyone who testified Thursday was in favor of requiring GMO labeling. But even if passed, this bill may hit a major snag.

“I think it’s very likely that we would be sued, very likely,” said Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Sorrell says requiring companies to label their product is a violation of Freedom of Speech and Vermont would be sued by some big players.

Sorrell is scheduled to testify before the legislature Friday, warning lawmakers about the costly risk of litigation. The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to vote on the bill Friday, which would then send it to the Senate Judiciary Committee.